Archive for August, 2004

northwest Montana
Visited: August 29, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 85 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

1,000,000 acres of Montana wilderness. The numerous ruggedly steep U-shaped canyons that the Park is famous for were created by centuries of glacial erosion. Glacier NP lies at an ecological crossroads and boasts a dazzling diversity of plant life, birds and mammals.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Even the most cynical visitors (sadly enough in Glacier’s case, us) cannot help but be astounded by the mountains’ jagged peaks, the shimmering blue lakes, the majestic lumbering of grizzly bears and the thick dirty white expansiveness of the dying glaciers.

We found the Park’s historical pull to be dubious at best. We took a tour of the rustic Many Glacier Hotel and learned that the Park became famous though the promotion and inn building of robber baron Jim Hill. A few anecdotes about railroads and lodges, that is about it.

CROWDS (5/10)
We presume that the September Glacier crowd is much different from the July and August crowd. We imagine that summer brings families, college kids and the average American vacationer. They were not in Glacier in September. We found mostly older, erudite easterners who were very vocally in awe of their surroundings.

So many people stopped us along the trail with “this is the most beautiful place in the world” and “you’ll never see anything as gorgeous as the view around the corner” that we progressively grew a chip on our shoulders despite the Park’s splendor.

Still, Glacier NP’s magnificence is hard to argue, especially when the sun is shining, the glaciers sparkling and every turn of the corner could find you face to face with a bear or moose. Most of the time the thing around the bend was a tourist; the hiking routes were very crowded. Crowd avoidance is difficult for two reasons: a) the backcountry treks simply connect the popular day trips and b) the warm weather visitation window runs only for a few months.

Red Buses at Glacier NPEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
While remote, Glacier NP is accessible to the many different types of travelers. For the high-end visitor, there are historic rustic lodges in Lake McDonald, East Glacier and Many Glacier. There are affordable “Motor Inns” at both Rising Sun and Many Glacier. Thirteen campgrounds provide over 1,000 sites to pitch your tent. Some even allow for reservations. Two backcountry chalets are available for the overnight hiker who does not want to carry a tent.

Despite the proliferation of overnight opportunities, finding a place to stay is difficult due to Glacier NP’s short season and legendary popularity. Snow melts in June and returns in late September. You have three months. July and August are manic and September weather hugely unpredictable. We chose the first few days of September and were rewarded with the “nicest weather we’ve had in weeks”. They last week of August was so rainy, cloudy and miserable that no one was able to even see the peaks.

Even though the September crowds were low, we still could not freely pick and choose a backcountry trek. The requisite campgrounds along the popular hiking routes were all reserved. If you want to backcountry hike, plan ahead, know your route and spend the $20 reservation fee. We had no trouble getting a car camping site at midday, but they did fill by nightfall. If we had not gotten a campsite we would have been out of luck; the rustic lodges were full.

Getting to Glacier NP is a trek. Technically, the nearest airport lies 25 miles away in Kalispell, Mont. but most of the people we talked to had flown into either Missoula or Great Falls and rented a car. Missoula is 150 miles to the south of Glacier’s western entry point, Apgar, while Great Falls is 150 miles to the southeast of the Park’s east gate, St. Mary. Choose your poison.

The road from Apgar to St Mary is the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road is stunning and provides vehicular access to the Park’s forbidding peaks. Be careful. The road is difficult driving and is subject to rockslides, flooding and constant repairs. Two days before we arrived, collapsed rocks closed down the road. Glacier NP’s website provides daily updates.

Your car must be less than 21 feet in length to travel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. No RV’s allowed. One night we camped next to a Pennsylvania family that had rented a 24 feet RV unaware of Glacier NP’s restrictions. As a result they detoured over 100 miles around the southern border of the Park to get from one end to the other where they took the famously retro red-car tour of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. They seemed pretty bummed.

Glacier NP bookstores focus on Glacier specific titles with much success. Between the myriad coffee table photography books and ‘where to hike’ titles, there is room for little else. The lodge-run gift stores fill in the blanks with stuffed animals, t-shirts, sweatshirts and knickknacks.

Just Feet From Our Campsite COSTS (2/5)
Entry is $20 per vehicle, but free with the National Parks Pass. Campgrounds are moderately priced at $15 per site. Backcountry permits run $4 per person per day. An advanced backcountry reservation inquiry costs an additional $20. Lodging costs range from $71 at the Apgar Village Lodge to $155 at the Glacier Park Lodge. A spot at the backcountry Sperry Chalet runs an unbelievable $255 per night. That place must be nice. Boat tours along the Park’s lakes are available for a modest charge. The Hiker’s shuttle that runs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road costs a surprising $8 per leg. If you want the convenience of the shuttle and your trek takes you to scenic Many Glacier it’s going to cost you $24 per person. We balked at the steep price.

Glacier NP is well staffed. Our questions at all five Ranger information stations found quick and responsive answers. Ranger-led tours are numerous and popular. Three leave per day from Many Glacier. Two last all day, one going 10 miles to Iceberg Lake and the other traveling 8.5 miles to Grinnell Glacier. The tours that we attended and/or passed on the trail all included over 40 people. If there were more hikes, they would undoubtedly find eager participants.

We found refuge on our first rainy night at the Many Glacier Hotel. After we sufficiently warmed by the fire, we joined a Ranger tour of the hotel which promised to discuss the history of the hotel and its present day renovation.

At one point, the group entered into a fascinating discussion about who really owns the hotel, how public/private partnerships with hoteliers work and how our tax dollars are or are not being used to fund renovations. Sadly, this was cut short by one tour participant who, unlike the dozen or so people actively participating in the conversation, felt that we were straying too far from the advertised topic. “I’m not interested in politics; I’m interested in the history of the hotel.” The Ranger conceded, but offered to continue the conversation with anyone interested after the walk was officially over.

Meditating MichaelOver the course of several days, we encountered a number of Ranger-led walks on the more popular trails near Many Glacier. It was not unusual to see at least 30 people on a tour, and more than one Ranger. We stopped to chat with some participants of a day-long Ranger-led hike to Grinnell Glacier. They were tired, but very pleased. “He (the Ranger) told us everything about everything. It was cool. It was kind of like school,” was the evaluation of one of the hikers. This group had been led out on to the glacier by the experienced Ranger, a feat that we were too timid to try on our own.

Visitor Centers at Apgar, St. Mary’s and Logan Pass did not carry much in terms of museums or displays. There is no need when it is all outside. The Logan Pass Visitor Center rests on the Continental Divide, halfway across the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Trailheads to several easy walks begin here. It was too crowded to spend any amount of time there. We took our obligatory photo next to the Continental Divide sign and continued down the road.

FUN (8/10)
We were reluctant to enter Glacier NP for a number of reasons. We were unsure of what accommodations would be available, we didn’t know if summer crowds had subsided just yet and clouds were still ominous as we drove through East Glacier. The ice storm we had encountered at Yellowstone was still fresh in our minds and we weren’t sure if we were in the mood to camp in bad weather again. Glacier had a lot to prove to this set of bad attitudes.

As the days went on and the sun stayed shining, we couldn’t help but be won over by Glacier’s landscape and residents. Friendly conversations with other people on the trails enabled us to focus on getting to the top of Swiftcurrent Pass where steep ledges and unobstructed views of the valley below were both beautiful and a little dizzying.

Trails at Glacier range from easy to strenuous. We had no trouble finding ways to keep busy, especially during our stay near Many Glacier, our favorite part of the park. The campground at Many Glacier was comfortable and conveniently located next to one of the Motor Inns, a camp store, and trailheads to two of our chosen hikes.

The Going-to-the-Sun road is as beautiful as advertised. However, we couldn’t help thinking how beautiful Glacier’s wilderness would be if it were more wild.

 Glacier NP WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
The park’s namesakes will not be there forever. As we were hiking to the Grinnell Glacier, one of the largest remaining in the park, we passed a set of young geologists who had kayaked out to the base of the glacier to measure it. It has shrunk almost 300% in the past three years. At this rate, Glacier National Park is anticipating its final glaciers to melt within 25 to 40 years. There is a bit of urgency if majestic ice forms are what you aiming to see.

Only at Yellowstone and Isle Royale National Parks have we come as close to the large wildlife we saw here. One morning, a black bear surprised our campground using it for a leisurely shortcut on its way to the woods. We surprised a large bull moose and two of his female friends that same morning as we were hiking towards Iceberg Lake. Glacier was full of pleasant surprises for us, the most pleasant being that we enjoyed it. We entered Glacier National Park thinking, “this had better be spectacular…” To our delight, it was.

TOTAL 54/80


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Great Falls, Mont.
Visited: August 28, 2004
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
United States Forest Service Website; Virtual Tour via Great Falls Tribune

Portage PracticeWHAT IS IT?
5,500 square feet of permanent exhibits that attempt to explain Lewis and Clark’s entire 1804-1806 journey.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The Center’s building is a modern, beautiful use of space. It overlooks the Missouri River, which no longer has Great Falls, and looks nothing like the waterway Lewis and Clark once portaged.

This area proved to be slow going for the Corps of Discovery. The series of falls were difficult to portage, as evidenced by the life-sized scene, spanning two floors in the atrium of the Center. Great Falls is seen as one of the great trials and difficulties of the Lewis and Clark journey.

CROWDS (2/10)
Many travelers make their way to the Lewis and Clark Center in Great Falls. 80,000 per year. There will probably be more during the 2004-2006 bicentennial celebration. We ran into a large, slow-moving and mostly septuagenarian crowd. Much different than our encounters at less remote L&C Sites. No one seemed excited, walking through the exhibits with a visible sense of obligation. “It’s on the trail. We’ve got to do it.”

The Interpretive Center is aware of its audience. Elevators and ramps are abundant, both inside and outside the building. Easy walking trails line the bank of the Missouri. The site itself is not far from the Interstate but you still need to go through Great Falls to get to it. Anyone at the Great Falls Visitor Information Center, or anyone in Great Falls for that matter, will point you in the right direction. Make a right, then a left, then a right.

The Bookstore included a terrific selection of Lewis and Clark titles. All of the standards and more but they were all arranged on four spinning towers which, because of the slow-moving crowd, we found impossible to get to. We saw the titles through the bookstore’s glass partitions, never personally handling the books.

COSTS (3/5)
The Site costs $5.00 per person. Because the National Forest Service administers the Site, admission is free with the $15 National Parks Pass Golden Eagle Hologram Sticker Upgrade. The upgrade covers admission to all National Forests and Bureau of Land Management Sites.

On sheer numbers alone, this rating is a 3. Forest Rangers and volunteers were everywhere. If you moved within 10 feet of any of them, you were met with the same recorded mantra: “A (Ranger talk or Ken Burns) film begins in (fill-in-blank) minutes in the (fill-in-blank) room. You should go see it. It’s really good”

The aforesaid Ranger talks occurred every hour and we would have attended another had we even slightly enjoyed the first. If you want the Stephen Ambrose/Ken Burns doctrine explained then the Rangers will be helpful.

The Center stresses that you first watch the 30-minute introductory film, Corps of Discovery, filmed, directed and narrated by the ubiquitous Ken Burns. We found the film to be too long, too boring, and at times historically suspect. It is only recut snippets of Burns’ marathon 1997 Lewis and Clark – Corps of Discovery documentary. If you have already seen that film, do not waste another half hour.

The film stated as fact many topics that we have learned at other L&C Sites to be subjects of intense historical debate. For example, was Sakakawea kidnapped or born Hidatsa? The Lewis and Clark Journals state that she embraced a Shoshone chief and called him “Brother.” From this interaction, the non-native explorers concluded that this was her “real” family from whom she had been separated.

At Knife River Villages NHS, more than this singular interpretation is offered. Knife River Villages, home of Sakakawea and her alleged kidnappers, was traditionally a great center of commerce. Trading partners from numerous and even enemy tribes would congregate at markets and celebrations here, much like the fur trade’s Rendezvous at various forts. A Lewis and Clark historian at Knife River explained to us that it was very possible that Sakakawea knew the Shoshone chief from these commercial interactions. Her use of the word “brother” and her reported joy at seeing him does not necessarily lead to the same conclusions that are noted in the journals and stated as irrefutable fact in the Ken Burns film.

Overlooking Great FallsThe museum is a carbon copy of the film. Well produced, beautifully designed but lifeless, overly concerned with prose and unaccepting of counter arguments. The museum also overstepped its bounds, trying to explain the entire Lewis and Clark trip rather than focusing on their Montana experience. If you make it to Great Falls, Montana on the L&C trail, you probably have gone to other Interpretive Centers, most of which spotlight only the local incidents. i.e. Knife River Villages NHS in N. Dak., and the wonderful Lewis and Clark Interpretive Centers (Chamberlain, S.Dak. and Sioux City, Iowa).

Ranger-led talks occur every hour. We sat in on one entitled Sacagawea: Myth and Reality, which we thought sounded interesting. Within the first five minutes, the Ranger had clearly defined his own reality: the Lewis and Clark Journals.

We cannot accept the journals as a complete and unyielding reliable narrator. They were written by a ghostwriter with Clark’s help, nearly 15 years after the trip. Lewis had already died. The journals may be accurate but they are not an unquestionable tome. We learned at this Center that other accounts of the journey, such as the one written by Patrick Gass another member of the Corps, were suppressed by Clark and disavowed once published. We could not stand the Ranger’s haughty dismissive manner and we quickly left his lecture.

FUN (2/10)
When Lewis and Clark first arrived here in 1804, they faced an 18-mile portage around five raging waterfalls. Today the falls are gone, replaced by a sequence of dams. The Great Falls Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is much the same. Gone is the journey’s adventure, its fun and its appeal, replaced by a staid Ken Burns version whose exhibits lean on tired interpretation and Rangers take on unyielding schoolmarm personas. We could not wait to leave a Site that we had detoured hundreds of miles to reach.

No. There are so many other Lewis and Clark Sites that tell the story well. In fact, all of them we have visited to date. Great Falls, Montana is difficult to get to and not worth your time. If you are interested in the historical version taught here, rent the Ken Burns documentary.

TOTAL 26/80

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Madison Junction, Norris, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Canyon Village, Yellowstone Falls
northwest corner of Wyoming
Visited: August 25, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 84 of 353
NPS Website

Yellowstone National Park is a diverse natural wonderland roughly twice the size of the state of Delaware.

Because of the Park’s immense size and staggering variety of experiences, we have broken our Yellowstone reviews into three separate entries: the North, Central and South.

Grand Canyon of the YellowstoneWHAT IS IT?
The forty-mile stretch of road that travels west to east from the West Entrance of the Park to the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls. The Central portion of the Park roughly skirts the northern boundary of the Yellowstone caldera.

This section includes two prominent geyser basins, Norris and Monument. The Norris Geyser Basin is home to Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser. Central Yellowstone is most noteworthy for the stunning Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

BEAUTY (10/10)
The pink canyon walls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are astounding. The views of the upper and lower Falls do not seem real, more like a painting. There is a reason the overlook is called Artist Point.

In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first National Park, the first time land had ever been set aside for public use. Yellowstone NP served as the initial model for the conservation of our precious landscape.

The Museum of the Park Ranger is located in the Norris vicinity. The Museum, staffed exclusively by retired Park Rangers and located in the old Norris Soldier Station, tells the story of an important and often forgotten American educator, law enforcement officer and conservationist: the National Park Ranger.

CROWDS (2/10)
Few hikes exist in the Central area of the Park and the tourist is forced to appreciate the terrain along a crowded auto tour route. The Park brochure warns “Canyon and falls visible only from overlooks along canyon rims.” It does not lie. The overlooks are very crowded. Barreling buses, running children, ongoing roadwork, unmarked centerlines, camera induced tunnel vision tourists and limited parking make the canyon area a nightmare despite its overwhelming beauty.

Yellowstone NP Roadblock EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
Central Yellowstone can be accessed through the Park’s West Entrance, the town of West Yellowstone, Mont. West Yellowstone is 89 miles south of Interstate 90 and Bozeman, Mont. via U.S. Route 191. The West Entrance is also 111 miles northwest of Interstate 15 and Idaho Falls, Idaho via U.S. Route 20.

The Central portion of the Park forms the middle bar of the Figure Eight auto tour. We ran into lots of construction and detours; hopefully now the roads have been completed.

The very accessible Norris Geyser basin can be closely viewed due to an extensive boardwalk system. No falling into boiling water here.

The Yellowstone Association runs three stores brimming with books and goodies in the Central region, at Madison, Norris, and Canyon Village. For our fellow geek stamp collectors, all three have distinct National Parks Passport Stamps.

When 7:30 p.m. temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, we were thrilled to find a lounge tucked behind another Canyon gift store and next to the Canyon dining room. We huddled next to the fire and enjoyed a moderately priced beer. The lounge was packed with families, other cold tourists. Oh, the stories we heard.

Hot Springs at Yellowstone NP COSTS (3/5)
America’s first National Park costs only $20 per vehicle entrance fee. And that includes Grand Teton NP. What a bargain. Those combined 2.5 million acres could be free if you own a National Parks Pass.

The popular Central Yellowstone corridor has lots of lodging potential. The NPS-run first-come first-served Norris campground would have been our choice but it was full. So we settled for a spot in the mega-Xanterra Parks and Resorts-run 272 site Canyon campground where they choose your spot. Nothing stirs our wrath more than a freedom-less campground. Arrrgh we say, arrrgh.

Once the freezing rain started, we appreciated our proximity to the Canyon Village and did not mind our predicament. One of us might even have wished for a night at the nearby Xanterra lodge.

It is too bad that the Ranger facilities in the Central pale to their brethren in the North and South. The Canyon Village Visitor Center is just a trailer, dwarfed by the surrounding Xanterra gift shops and restaurants. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? We saw no Rangers at the Canyon overlooks.

During summer months, three Ranger-led talks occur daily at the Norris Geyser Basin and an amazing 14 take place alongside the Canyon. We went on a guided walk through the Norris geysers, but left early because we were eager to explore on our own. Sorry Mr. Ranger but your Park just beckons, especially when the sky unexpectedly turns blue.

But before we could get to the Canyon, the weather took a turn for the worse. All tours were cancelled and we were left wondering a) will it get better by tomorrow; b) can we wait it out in our tent; c) is it going to snow and d) what can we do in the mean time. We found out a) no; b) yes, frigidly; c) does two inches of freezing rain count? and d) not much at all.

The Visitor Center at Canyon Village is just a trailer. No exhibits are on display and the videos are shown on a small television surrounded by a few plastic chairs. Because of the weather, the chairs were full and the trailer stuffed to the gills. Yellowstone NP is notorious for its temperamentally bad weather. It is a shame that the Visitor Center in one of its most popular areas is so inadequate.

The next morning, after shaking off the shivers, we traveled to the delightful Museum of the National Park Ranger near Norris and located in the old Norris Soldier Station building. Our August 25 trip coincided with the 88th birthday of the Congressional creation of our Park system. We couldn’t think of a better place to be.

When Yellowstone EruptsFUN (6/10)
The central portion of Yellowstone was not the highlight of our visit. Because of its altitude and geographic location, it is usually colder and wetter than Mammoth Hot Springs. It was no exception during our visit. We can handle being cold and wet (evidently not, it seems), especially since most of our time in the central region was spent in the car auto-touring. But add immense crowds, limited access to overlooks and road construction around every turn and you can see why we were eager to move on.

Even at its least fun, Yellowstone is still heads and shoulders above other parks and still a must see. The Falls and the Grand Canyon are still breathtakingly beautiful. The Ranger Museum is still a hidden gem and an inviting place to spend a rainy morning.

TOTAL 58/80

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Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower-Roosevelt, Lamar Valley
northwest corner of Wyoming
Visited: August 22, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 84 of 353
NPS Website; USGS Website

The Roosevelt Arch. Welcome to Yellowstone NP. For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People Yellowstone National Park is a diverse natural wonderland roughly twice the size of the state of Delaware.

Because of the Park’s immense size and staggering variety of experiences, we have broken our Yellowstone reviews into three separate entries: the North, Central and South.

Yellowstone’s northern tier exists outside of the Yellowstone caldera and, as a result, enjoys a much greater variety of plant and animal life. Herds of bison roam the expanses of the Lamar Valley, joined by wolf packs, pronghorns and elk.

Most of Yellowstone’s easily accessible mountain peaks are here in the North. Nearly all of the Park’s bighorn sheep live in the alpine terrain just south of Tower Fall around Mount Washburn.

The North’s most famous attraction is Mammoth Hot Springs. This extensive system of multihued cascading hot springs is very similar in geological development and appearance to the interior of spectacular caverns like Carlsbad and Mammoth. At Yellowstone, nature has been turned inside out.

The Mammoth Hot Springs exist outside the caldera and bubble and flow from the heat generated by the slow northeastward movement of the Jackson Hot Spot; the same Hot Spot that ten of thousands of years ago created the lava fields at Craters of the Moon NM and the rich potato-growing soils of southern Idaho.

View From Mount WashburnBEAUTY (10/10)
The North was the most beautiful part of the Park, especially the Lamar Valley. More wildlife, more diversity, higher mountains and supernatural hot springs.

In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first National Park, the first time land had ever been set aside for public use. Yellowstone NP served as the initial model for the conservation of our precious landscape.

The area also boasts of a long and important Native American history. The obsidian found throughout the Park was the most widely traded good in North American for thousands of years. Indians ranging throughout the continent fashioned arrowheads almost exclusively from materials mined here.

CROWDS (9/10)
Everybody in the North was so happy. We encountered so many different and excited people many of whom gave us indelible memories. There is much space and a wide array of activities nearby: fly fishing, auto touring, wildlife watching, hikes along paved walkways and boardwalks, moderate hikes through valleys, strenuous hikes up mountains and little used backcountry trails.

As soon as you venture away from the road, you see few people. The Beaver Ponds Loop Trail begins and ends in the heavily trafficked Mammoth Hot Springs area. Once we started hiking, we saw more elk than humans. Solitude is possible but hardly necessary given the giddy joy on all faces.

North Yellowstone can be accessed from Interstate 90 in Montana via U.S. Route 89 and U.S. Route 212.

Route 89 travels 58 miles south from Livingston, Mont. to Mammoth Hot Springs. This scenic route follows the Yellowstone River the whole way and enters the Park underneath the imposing stone Roosevelt arch at the Park’s North Entrance.

Route 212, the Beartooth Highway, is a 124 mile drive from Billings, Mont. It is one of America’s most scenic drives. Starting in Red Lodge, Mont., it climbs tremendous heights, eventually crossing the Wyoming border at the 10,947 Beartooth Pass. The road passes through the Custer and Shoshone National Forests and is every bit as stunning as the Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier NP. Understandably, it weather often makes it impassable.

On the Way to the Visitor CenterRoute 212 enters the Park at Silver Gate, Mont., the Northeast Entrance, and travels 29 miles through the Lamar Valley before reaching the Yellowstone Figure Eight Driving Loop at Tower-Roosevelt. The Lamar Valley is home to much of the Park’s wildlife and is seldom traveled because it is outside the standard auto tour loop.

The North section of Yellowstone NP forms the ? portion of the Figure Eight Driving Loop.

Once you get to Yellowstone, the Park is very accessible. Numerous pull offs and picnic areas allow the motorist to see oodles of wildlife. Mammoth Hot Springs can be closely viewed due to an extensive boardwalk system that is constantly being rebuilt. Yellowstone NP makes incredible efforts to ensure the visitor an optimum experience.

The Yellowstone Association runs eight different (and all outstanding) online bookstores in the Park. The Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center hosts their only store in the North.

Two full-service dining rooms, one at the Roosevelt Lodge and one at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge offers meals and full Verizon cellular service.

COSTS (3/5)
A $20 vehicle entrance fee is good for a week’s stay at both Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP, an incredible bargain given the sheer amount of things to see in the Parks’ combined 2.5 million acres. And it’s all free with the National Parks Pass!

The North has five campgrounds and 237 campsites; all NPS-run and first-come, first-serve. Mammoth campground is Yellowstone’s only year-round campsite. These are some of the Park’s most popular car camping sites and often fill up early.

Loungin’ Near the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center There are Xanterra-run lodges, cabins and hotel rooms at both Roosevelt and Mammoth.

Backcountry camping is free. If you’re the worrisome type you can make ahead of time reservations for $20 per trip.

Rangers are everywhere and they do a terrific job. Amidst the madness of the heavily touristed Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center, Gab received day hike brochures covering six of the Park’s major areas. The Ranger took the time to pick out her favorite hikes on all six and explain that she has made a concerted effort to try them all. Her picks were all stellar.

A zoologist Ranger spots wolves along the Lamar Valley road nearly every day. Her stories of the wolf pack soap opera-esque saga are legendary.

Yellowstone NP offers so many Ranger Programs that it distributes an 8-page newspaper handout to everyone entering the park regarding these tours. The number of programs tapers severely as the seasons change and the weather turns nasty. Take a tour here. The Rangers are great.

We took the Mammoth Hot Spring Terrace Walk during what was technically summer. The cold rains came and our delightful Ranger immediately made sure to put the plastic weather guard on her signature straw hat. The weather did not deter our tour, but it was nice to linger in the warm steam of the Hot Springs.

Mammoth GabWe gained a good understanding of the tricky geological notions of calderas, supervolcanoes, hot spots and travertine formations. Her talk was a remarkable introduction to the mystical steaming world of Yellowstone.

For $0.50 a pop, the Yellowstone Association provides helpful glossy, color self-guided trail booklets for nearly every sub-section of the Park.

FUN (10/10)
The Mammoth campground hosts were greeted by us every morning as we extended our stay “just one more day”. This happened three times. Rangers told us that the best hikes in the Park are in the North. We have no reason to argue.

The North also felt less crowded and more off the beaten path. The outsourced lodges, campsites and gift stores have less of a presence. If it hadn’t been for the crazy weather we don’t know if we ever would have left.

On Top of WashburnWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
Oh my heavens yes. Yellowstone NP is the classic National Parks destination. Much to our delight the Museums, tours, staffing and bookstores are all equal to the stunning natural surroundings.

Everything here is done right.

We loved the North and would love to spend days, if not weeks, in the backcountry here sometime soon.

TOTAL 74/80

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Crow Agency, Mont.
Visited: August 21, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 82 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Lasting Memorial

The Site of the infamous and immortalized Last Stand of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Little Bighorn Battlefield looked nothing like what we had always imagined. Michael is not sure why he had always imagined canyons in Montana. The landscape consists only of rolling yellow hills, of which Last Stand Hill is the highest. White gravestones mark the places where the American soldiers fell.

A Little Bighorn Indian Memorial was dedicated in 2003. It is a striking circular design. The monument’s inner walls contain the names of all Indians who died in the fighting. The names are arranged by tribe. The Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho are honored next to their enemies in battle, the Crow and the Arikara. Quotes from the survivors accompany the names. A wrought iron Spirit Warriors Sculpture stands in a lowered portion of the circular wall. Many tributes have been tied to the irons. It is a moving memorial.

The interest in Little Bighorn is due to in place in American myth. The Battle is remembered not because it holds any military or historical significance. Unlike the battles along the Bozeman Trail, the Lakota Sioux gained no land and no concessions from their victory. Little Bighorn failed to stop the Montana gold rush. The U.S. Army’s loss did not alter the reservation policy and did not lead to greater military commitment. In five years, by 1881, all Lakota Sioux would be on reservations. By 1889, Montana would be a state. The historical outcome would have been the same regardless of the battle.

Only the Crow Indians may have seen benefit. They aided the U.S. Army as scouts and faced no displacement. They kept their southeast Montana homeland as their reservation. They even got to keep the name. In 1991, a presidential edict changed the Site’s name from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Crows called it Battle of Little Bighorn, the victorious Sioux called it the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

Little Bighorn earned its place in legend because of timing. Custer’s defeat occurred on June 25, 1876, nine days prior to our nation’s gala centennial festivities. News of the battle was strewn across all of the nation’s newspapers. We were celebrating our 100-year birthday, our Manifest Destiny, our unity and our natural growth to be one the world’s great nations. Instead, we learned about an embarrassing and complete defeat to a people we thought were vanquished. As a result, Custer’s Last Stand takes its place in the history books.

Motor Home Madness

CROWDS (3/10)
The Site was unbelievably crowded. We happened on Little Bighorn at the same time as the World Famous Crow Fair and Rodeo taking place in the nearby town of Crow Agency. Some of the Battlefield crowd must have been overflow but most seemed unrelated to the Native American festivities.

The parking lot overflowed with Recreational Vehicles. Ranger talks challenged the Park’s bench capacity. Hundreds listened to each lecture. The crowd was mostly retirees. We felt cramped and rushed throughout the Park. The museum was poorly arranged given the tremendous amount of traffic. After ten minutes of fruitlessly trying to look at the exhibits, we left. We skipped the Battlefield Road drive, not willing to crawl down the road between the many RV’s.

The Battlefield is located less than a mile from Interstate 90, Exit 510. Southeast Montana is remote, regardless of Interstate access. The Site’s parking lot and its museum were not big enough.

A good selection of Site-specific books. Thousands of books have been written about Custer’s Last Stand. The Site’s store focuses on these titles.

COSTS (2/5)
Entrance fees are $5 per person, $10 per car. Entry is free with the National Parks Pass.

The Park Rangers do their best to handle the crowds. They give half-hour long lectures every 45 minutes, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Rangers also linger around the patio area during the other talks to ensure that all questions are answered.

We joined the 9:45 a.m. The Cavarly Soldier in 1876 lecture just after it had begun. We were transfixed. The Ranger, who identified himself as member of the Crow tribe, was tremendous. His initial aim was to debunk the soldier myths of both western movies and Little Bighorn. “John Wayne would have been much too big to ride a cavalry horse. The U.S. Cavalry had a set weight limit.” He talked about their clothing, saddles and living conditions.

As the crowd grew larger, nearing 100, his talk shifted into discussion about war itself and the necessity for peace. At times, it was hard to distinguish when he was talking about 1876 and the present. Particularly since so many current Special Forces insignias and symbols are derived directly from the Native Guides’ cavalry uniforms he was showing us. The Ranger equally revered the United States and his Crow heritage. He reminded his audience that if they blamed Custer, they must blame the government that sent him to the task.

Battle VictimsWe were so excited about his talk that we stayed for the Battle Talk with a new Ranger. It wasn’t nearly as good and we left to walk the Battlefield. We then took the Deep Ravine Trail, self-guided with a 50-cent booklet where we learned that any explanation of what happened during the battle is complete conjecture. There are no reliable witnesses. All of Custer’s men died and the Indian stories vary greatly. We left confused but overall, we did not really care about the specifics of Little Bighorn.

FUN (3/10)
Our fun at Little Bighorn tapered severely after the 9:45 a.m. patio talk. Gab is not a big fan of Battlefields, the RV’s were numerous, the crowds large and the history dubious.

We wouldn’t, but to us Custer’s Last Stand holds no fascination. The December of 1866 Fetterman Fight a/k/a the Battle of the One-Hundred Slain is much more interesting. Click here for a virtual tour.

It is dissimilar to Little Bighorn only in that it had historical repercussions: travel along the Bozeman Trial was halted and the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty was signed, giving the Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux and that it did not take on mythic proportion in the East. That Battlefield is located in Wyoming, about 90 miles south of Little Bighorn along Interstate 90 and near Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site.

TOTAL 34/80

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near Billings, Mont.
Visited: August 21, 2004
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Local Website

Pompey’s Pillar WHAT IS IT?
A sandstone butte alongside the Yellowstone River whose definitive feature is the graffiti signature of William Clark, one-half of the Lewis and Clark team. His autograph is only remaining physical evidence along the trail.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The mesa is impressive as is the view of the Yellowstone River below. Still, the boardwalk and the newly constructed grain elevators in the horizon obstruct the grand vista.

Clark, but not Lewis, was here. He left his signature, along with dozens of others before the rock became a protected landmark. The now famous rock was named after Sacagawea’s son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau a.k.a. Pomp. Everyone else in the expedition was memorialized through the naming of rivers, streams, crossings, etc. so wny not Pomp.

Had Lewis or Clark been more prolific scrawlers and left their tags on other places, Pompey’s Pillar would really be no big deal. But they didn’t so it is.

CROWDS (6/10)
The few people that were touring the Monument did not influence our visit.

Pompey’s Pillar is located a short distance from Exit 23 of Interstate 94 and is about 25 miles east of Billings, Mont. Once you leave the Interstate the mile or so road to the Site is unpaved as is the parking lot. Despite its proximity to 94, Pompey’s Pillar is a remote destination.

Clark’s signature can be reached only by walking up a boardwalk that includes many stairs. The boardwalk continues to the top of the butte. Sadly, you cannot veer from the wooden pathway, run around the top of the mesa and survey the scene as Clark did in 1806.

We have been to so many Lewis and Clark sites that the numerous book titles just blur together. Most of the books are available everywhere but not every site has the full boat of stuffed animals, T-shirts, patches, jigsaw puzzles and key chains. Pompey’s Pillar NM had a below average inventory which should change when the $4.9 million Yellowstone Interpretive Center opens in the spring of 2005.

COSTS (3/5)
The Site costs $3.00 per vehicle. Admission is free with the $15 National Parks Pass Golden Eagle Hologram Sticker Upgrade. The upgrade covers admission to all National Forests and Bureau of Land Management Sites.

There was a Ranger at the makeshift Visitor Center as well as one standing underneath the signature ready to answer questions. “So, that’s Clark’s signature?” “Why yes, it is?” “From which angle can we get the best picture?” “Not sure, just try them all.” “So, uh, can we walk to the top?” “Yes, it is a beautiful view, just stay on the boardwalk.”

Currently there are no L&C explanations to speak of in the Visitor Center. We hope that this problem will soon be remedied. We wish that improvements could have been completed in time to celebrate the Lewis and Clark 2004 bicentennial.

We enjoyed the mimeographed sheet of paper on the Site’s door that explained where L&C where and what they were doing on this date 200 years ago. Why doesn’t every L&C Site do this?

FUN (4/10)
The Site’s restrictive nature severely limited our fun. We are unsure why we could not stray from the boardwalk. The several video cameras poised to capture the meandering tourist made us a bit paranoid and scared to enjoy ourselves, as did the harshly declarative signs telling us not to roam.

The signature itself is encased behind a steamy plastic barrier and is both hard to see and impossible to capture with a good picture. The attentive glare of the Ranger and the video camera made viewing Clark’s mark a rushed and nervous experience. We felt like we were in a department store and the clerk assumed we were going to steal something.

Clark’s John HancockWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10)
If you are on the Lewis and Clark Trail stop at Pompey’s Pillar. Clark’s signature attaches realness to what can at times be a journey of abstract historical imagination. He was here! There is his John Hancock, not just a statue, an Interpretive Center, a dammed-up river or a plaque.

TOTAL 37/80

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south-central Montana and north-central Wyoming
Visited: August 21, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 83 of 353

NPS Website

Yellowtail DamWe spent so little time at Bighorn NRA that we cannot fairly offer you a full review.

The best things about Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area were the Indian tacos we ate in Crow Agency, Mont. before our stop and our night in Billings, Mont. after it. Between detours and dead end roads we spent more time trying to reach the Site than we did at the Site. Tours of the Yellowtail Dam had been suspended because of a high security alert. And the only thing at the end of another long dead end drive down to Bighorn Lake were high-powered motorboats and sport fishermen. So we left.

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